Is Mark 16:9-20 Inspired?

by Kyle Pope
via Biblical Insights, Vol. 9, No. 8, August 2009

Many students of the New Testament have found themselves puzzled by notes encountered at the close of the Gospel of Mark claiming, "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9–20"[1] Should we question the reliability or inspiration these verses? Three bodies of evidence demand our attention.

Greek Manuscripts

The basis of this claim rests largely on two 4th century manuscripts of the Greek New Testament: Codex Vaticanus (b) and Codex Sinaiticus (א). The first of these manuscripts has been listed in the Vatican library catalog since at least 1475. Greek scholar Constantine Tischendorf discovered the second in a Sinai desert monastery in 1844 just before it was about to be burned for firewood. Both manuscripts end the Gospel of Mark at verse eight. Since the time of Tischendorf's discovery, some scholars have contended that this shorter ending reflects the "original reading."

Does this prove these verses were not original? No! Both א and b leave blanks at the end of Mark where the verses could be written. א leaves almost an entire blank column and b leaves nearly a column and a half. This may suggest the scribe knew something was missing but didn't have a copy with this section intact. To assume that these manuscripts reflect the "original reading" presumes there is no earlier evidence for the existence of these verses. That, however, is not the case.

There are over 5000 extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. It is often asserted that א and b are the "oldest manuscripts" of the New Testament. That is not true (there are many fragmentary papyri that predate both). The majority of extant manuscripts include Mark 16:9–20. Some of these are only slightly younger than א and b. For example, Codex Alexandrinus (a), a 5th-century text has Mark 16:9-20. Codex Bezae (d) from the 5th-6th century has both the Greek and Latin. It is also in Codices Ephraemi Rescriptus (c) from the 5th century and Washingtonensis (w) from the 4th-5th century. [2] A few manuscripts with Mark 16:9–20 add scribal notes indicating some copies didn't include it. This simply identifies the fact that an omission was present in the manuscript tradition, but proves nothing about the originality of the passage. Must we reject Mark 16:9–20 in all other manuscripts because of two manuscripts that may have left space for its inclusion?

Ancient Translations

Early in the history of the transmission of the New Testament text, translations were made from Greek into languages where the gospel spread. Undoubtedly, if a manuscript from which a text was translated, had errors or omissions, these would show up in the translation also. As such, some early translations (just as in א and b) end at verse eight. Bruce Metzger, in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, writes that these include "the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written A.D. 897 and A.D. 913)" (122–23). There is also one Coptic manuscript that omits Mark 16:9-20.

Metzger's reference demands clarification. It is true that the 4th or 5th century Old Latin codex Bobiensis omits Mark 16:9–20, but it adds a short unique ending of its own. Does this reflect greater accuracy, or does it evidence a lack of consistency? Jerome claimed of the Latin texts of his day, "there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies" (Preface to the Four Gospels). This in part led to his work towards an "authorized version" for the Roman world—the Latin Vulgate. In an age before the printing press, human error and alteration played a role in the production of manuscripts. That didn't mean God's word was lost (Matthew 24:35), but simply meant since the error could occur, caution and comparison were needed in the preservation of the text.

Just as the majority of Greek manuscripts preserve Mark 16:9–20, so the majority of ancient translations do as well. To question the originality and inspiration of Mark 16:9–20 demands we disregard the efforts of centuries of scholars and translators. These were people who carefully compared and investigated the text, believing it to be the inspired word of God. Can we so easily reject their scholarship?

The Testimony of Ancient Writers

There is evidence as early as the 4th century that writers knew some manuscripts omitted these verses. Two 4th century writers address this in questions regarding how Matthew and Mark harmonize accounts of the resurrection. Both writers mention that the answers depend upon whether the words are taken to be original or not. The first, historian Eusebius in his Questions to Marinus, writes that after verse eight "at those words, in almost all copies of the Gospel according to Mark, comes the end" (1). He further claims that "what follows" (i.e. Mark 16:9-20) is found "rarely in some but not in all" copies (ibid.). The second, Biblical scholar Jerome, in a Letter to Hedibia, claimed that 16:9-20, "is carried in few gospels, almost all the books of Greece not having this passage at the end" (Question 3). Both Eusebius and Jerome did not emphatically reject the reliability of Mark 16:9-20 but only acknowledge that they were disputed.

It is clear that Jerome's words cannot be construed as a rejection of the reliability of  Mark 16:9-20 because of his own use of the passage. In his work Against the Pelagians, he uses Mark 16:14 to argue that the Apostles showed unbelief (II. 15). He even included the verses in his own Latin Vulgate translation. This is significant because Jerome stated in a Letter to Marcella regarding the unreliable form of the Latin texts, "I have wished to recall them to the Greek original from whence none deny, they have been translated" (27. 1). Did Jerome find additional Greek texts that had Mark 16:9-20, or did he recognize that those that lacked it were flawed?

Overwhelmingly the evidence from the testimony of ancient writers falls in support of the antiquity and originality of the passage. Not only contemporaries of Jerome and Eusebius, but writers that predate א, b, and the translations use it as authoritative. The earliest undisputed example of this is the 2nd-century writings of Irenaeus. In his Against Heresies, he writes, "at the end of the Gospel, Mark says: `So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat at the right hand of God' " (III. 10. 5). Here Irenaeus not only quotes Mark 16:19 but claims that it is at the end of Mark. If someone barely a generation after the composition of the New Testament quotes it, how can we question the antiquity and originality of this text?

In addition, Tatian (2nd century), in his harmony of the Gospels includes 16:9—20. Many early writers refer to the Lord's words in 16:18 about being unhurt by drinking poison. The record of the 7th Council of Carthage (ca. 258) under Cyprian cites a Vincentius of Thibaris who spoke of the Lord's "divine precept commanded to His apostles, saying, `Go ye, lay on hands in my name, expel demons, " a paraphrase of 16:17.

While the question of Mark's ending was known in the 4th century, most understood this text as inspired and unquestioned. Both Ambrose (ca. 337-397) and Augustine (ca. 354-430) frequently quoted it. Augustine, in his Harmony of the Gospels, comments extensively on 16:12 (III. 24. 69). This is significant because of the emphasis he placed on the value of the Greek text. In On Christian Doctrine, he wrote, "As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek, especially those that are found in the churches of greater learning and research" (II. 15, 22). Was Augustine familiar with Greek texts having 16:9-20 unknown to Eusebius and Jermone? John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) referred to Mark 16:9 in his Homily 38 on First Corinthians (5; I Corinthians 15:8). Finally, Macarius Magnus (ca. 400) in Apocriticus answers pagan challenges to Mark 16:17-18 (III. 16 and 24). From the 5th century onward, citations become too numerous to mention.

The Conclusion

There is no question that at some point in the early history of copying the text of Mark an issue arose over 16:9-20. This influenced copies and translations after it. Yet, Irenaeus quotes it "at the end of the Gospel" little more than a generation after the New Testament canon closed. This with the overwhelming evidence of manuscripts, translations, and ancient testimony leaves no doubt that these words were in the original text of Mark as inspired by the Spirit (II Timothy 3:16).

  1. The New International Version inserts this note before its translation of 16:9-20. As we demonstrate in this article, this statement assumes a great deal and fails to express all the evidence at our disposal.
  2. We should note that while w has 16:9-20, it adds additional material. While that reflects alteration, its inclusion of the verses provides witness to their acceptance and existence.
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